To be honest, until a few years ago I would have been very reluctant to talk about the topic of self-regulation in a public space. I considered myself the unchallenged master of procrastination, and my image of a self-regulated person was of someone with an impossibly tidy desk, forever creating to-do lists or attaching post-it notes to furniture. My own desk is far from tidy and instead of creating a to-do list, I am more likely to find myself watching yet another YouTube video or pouring myself one more cup of coffee. For a long time, I felt bad about this because it did not fit with my beliefs about how a productive person should behave. It was only when I started to read more about the concept of self-regulation that I began to feel better about myself, and probably, as a result, became more productive. Here, I want to share some of that discovery.
What is self-regulation?
Closely related to learner autonomy and independence, Self-regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviour in a way that is productive, while simultaneously contributing to an enhanced sense of wellbeing. We feel good about ourselves when we are achieving the things we want to achieve, at a pace that feels comfortable. Self-regulated learning refers to the channeling of self-regulation in the pursuit of learning.
Self-regulation in language learning
Learning is almost always a challenge—that is what makes it so rewarding—but in the case of language learning, self-regulation is especially important, as learning a foreign language tends to be a long, arduous process, full of setbacks, with signs of progress being few and far between. Language learning usually occurs over many years and learners cannot rely on any single teacher to provide direction over such an extended period. Put simply, learners need to be able to direct their own learning; self-regulation is essential for individuals to navigate the unique challenges of language learning in a way that leads to successful outcomes and reduces feelings of internal conflict or stress.
In particular, self-regulation helps learners stay focused on goals, avoiding unwanted distractions and maintaining attention. By staying focused on their goals, learners can experience the feelings of achievement and progress essential to sustaining effort over the long term. Of course, an important aspect of staying focused on a goal is the nature of the goal itself and for this reason goal setting is at the heart of self-regulated learning. We work more effectively and make better decisions when we are working towards appropriate goals. The most appropriate goals are those that balance challenge with the likelihood of success; contrary to popular wisdom, people enjoy difficult things, but they are intimidated by tasks beyond their current competence. It can be helpful to think in terms of what are known as SMART goals: goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
The emotional dimension
Discussions of education often ignore the emotional aspect to learning. This is especially true of language learning, which can be a highly loaded emotional experience. When emotions become overwhelming, they can negatively impact an individual’s ability to function effectively. Self-regulation can help individuals better manage their emotions and respond to situations more calmly. Key to doing this is learning to identify the situations, people, or events that trigger strong emotional reactions. By recognizing these triggers, individuals can prepare for and better manage their emotional responses. Of course, the logical extension is that learners need to develop strategies that allow them to cope with these emotional challenges.
One useful strategy for managing the emotional side to language learning is being more aware of the internal dialogue we have within ourselves. This is known as self-talk. Negative self-talk can be harmful, leading to self-doubt, anxiety, and stress. By using positive self-talk, individuals can build self-confidence and better channel their emotions.
Self-regulated learning does not mean learning alone or isolation. Self-regulation benefits from the support of others, perhaps even requires it. These others can be peers, and they can be family members. However, in educational settings, self-regulation is best encouraged through support at the institutional level and through individual teachers. Perhaps the ultimate challenge for language teachers is to develop ways in which to hand over the direction and control of learning to learners themselves.
More self, less regulation
Self-regulation is a critical life skill that can help learners manage their emotions, make better decisions, and achieve their goals. However, self-regulation it is not something that comes naturally or easily to everyone. While anyone can improve their ability to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviour, for many people this requires focused practice and some explicit guidance.
Going back to my YouTube and coffee habits, I used to think of these as a problem because I saw self-regulation in terms of ‘self-control’ or ‘self-denial’. Now, I better understand self-regulation as a part of a process of self-growth: if these habits function as unwelcome distractions they are likely to lead to unsuccessful outcomes and frustration, but if they serve as a welcome break or a chance to recharge my batteries, then they are likely enhancing my productivity and sense of wellbeing. Self-regulated learning is not about shutting out the outside world in the single-minded pursuit of learning objectives. It is not about any particular skill or strategy. It is not about a once-size-fits-all model of learning. It is about understanding what works for you in your learning situation. Ultimately, it is about how we integrate learning into our lives.
If you want more best practice advice to help you nurture independent lifelong learners, you can download our recent position paper, The Key to Self-Regulated Learning.
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Stephen Ryan has been involved in language education for over 30 years both as a practicing teacher and as a researcher. Most of that time has been spent in Japan and he is currently a professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University, Tokyo. His research and publications cover various aspects of psychology in language learning, including the award-winning Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, coauthored with Marion Williams and Sarah Mercer, and The Psychology of the Language Learner Revisited, co-authored with Zoltan Dörnyei. Stephen is a consultant on this paper.